Noriko Matsueda: The Composer Who Brought the Jazz to Squaresoft
One name has been missing from the conversation about game music composers: Noriko Matsueda. Around the turn of the century, she laced Square games with jazzy vibes. A tribute.
I. Prelude: The Mid 90s
Noriko Matsueda started composing game music for Squaresoft titles in the mid 1990s. Stylish mech strategy game Front Mission was the first Square title she contributed music to. Front Mission came out for Super Famicom in early 1995. Matsueda chipped in about half the tunes, with the other part of the soundtrack being handled by Yoko Shimomura, of Street Fighter II fame.
Noriko Matsueda’s main instrument is the piano — and it shows in Front Mission’s soundtrack. She used the Super Famicom’s powerful Sony sound chip to emulate a genre very rarely heard in video games: jazz. The Bar background theme, sampled above, was probably a big surprise to gamers of the day, as it features a jazzy bassline and a subtle piano melody. The track still fit well with the futuristic but also somewhat melancholic mood of Front Mission. Future installments of the franchise would keep up this special musical style.
In addition to background music such as Bar, Matsueda also composed some of the more atmospheric tracks in Front Mission. Among them: the fan favorite Within Living Memory, an epic and emotional piece. It’s stylistically similar to classic Square chiptunes, showing that Matsueda was already able to capture the “house vibe” with her very first soundtrack contributions.
Shortly after Front Mission, Japanese gamers saw the release of enduring RPG behemoth Chrono Trigger. Noriko Matsueda contributed one theme to its soundtrack — Boss Battle 1. Again, she nailed the Square style, writing a boss theme with rising tension and the company’s trademark prog rock organ front and center. Fittingly, Boss Battle 1 was arranged by Square’s maestro himself, Nobuo Uematsu.
In 1996 and 1997, respectively, Noriko Matsueda finally went solo for Square soundtracks, composing the music for tactical Super Famicom RPG Bahamut Lagoon — and for Front Mission 2, her first PlayStation 1 game. Both titles were NTSC-J only and thus received limited exposure in the West. The Front Mission 2 score takes advantage of a wide range of possibilities that the PS1’s CD format offered. Matsueda replicated the mood of the first Front Mission, but with much more instrumentation at her disposal. Check out the upbeat Arena theme here for a taste:
Personally, however, I remember Bahamut Lagoon more than Front Mission 2. The epic sounding name alone intrigued me when it popped up in game magazines back in the day. A highlight on Noriko Matsueda’s soundtrack for Bahamut Lagoon is Yoyo’s Theme, another successful blend of emotion, atmosphere, and epic breadth. I find its melody to be even more memorable than that of Within Living Memory from Front Mission. Clearly, Matsueda got better in her first years at Square and started finding her own voice within the company’s musical language.
Sadly, her funky contribution to the eclectic Tobal No. 1 score did not appear in the game itself, but only as a bonus on the soundtrack release.
II. Genre Synthesis: Racing Lagoon (1999)
Many of the PS1’s most iconic soundtracks came out near the end of the great boom the console enjoyed, around the turn of the century. The prime example is Namco’s R4: Ridge Racer Type 4, from 1999, with its ingenious genre blend of electronic music, funk and neo-soul. That same year, Noriko Matsueda put out another solo soundtrack, also for a racer, that seriously challenged R4’s mind-blowing arrangements. However, a lot less gamers were likely to hear the music of “Driving RPG” Racing Lagoon.
Just like Matsueda’s previous efforts Bahamut Lagoon and Front Mission 2, Racing Lagoon never made it out of Japan. Additionally, Racing Lagoon simply wasn’t as good as R4 when it comes to the actual gameplay. Not a surprise though, since Square’s last attempt at the racing genre dated back to Rad Racer 2 in 1990. R4 developer Namco, on the other hand, had aced racing games at that point.
However, the quality of Racing Lagoon as a game did not deter Noriko Matsueda from refining her musical style. She went all in with the soundtrack, synthesizing styles she had used individually in her previous efforts, while at the same time adding new influences. The score for Racing Lagoon also marked Matsueda’s first collaboration with Takahito Eguchi, a talented composer specializing in electronic vibes. Eguchi would go on to work on many Sega soundtracks, especially from the Sonic series.
Racing Lagoon’s tunes burst with colorful, glitzy vibes, and inspirations from all kinds of genres. Take Star Fall Night, for example: It starts with a jazzy Matsueda style bass, then introduces a jungle like drum pattern, and finally, before looping again, a piano improvisation. The story in Racing Lagoon sees Japanese teens competing in nightly races on the streets of Yokohama. In a one minute loop, Star Fall Night captures the allure of this dangerous activity, sounding both modern and classically cool at the same time.
Hip-hop is another genre Matsueda experimented with in Racing Lagoon. The theme song for characters Kuniteru Takahashi and Manabu Oda might be my personal favorite from the soundtrack. It begins with a synth line straight out of a g-funk track and voice samples in the background. In kick a funky e-piano and the occasional sax stabs. All in all, a totally atmospheric tune to vibe with.
With Racing Lagoon, Noriko Matsueda came a long way from the more “traditional” Square scores she had done a few years earlier. Even though it wasn’t a big title in Square’s line-up, it was perfect for a creative composer like Matsueda to experiment with different genres of the time.
III. Bagpipes, Brawling: The Bouncer (2000)
Noriko Matsueda’s employer, Square, was riding high at the turn of the millennium, with continuing successes like the Final Fantasy series and exciting new games such as Chrono Cross or Vagrant Story. The company even set its sights on Hollywood, by lining up Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, the first full-length CG movie with real characters, for a 2001 release.
Consequently, Square wanted to try something special with their first game for the new PlayStation 2, in 2000: The Bouncer, a Final Fight style brawler with a heavy emphasis on story and elaborate cutscenes. Square attempted a game that felt like a DVD movie experience, complete with DVD style menus. Not coincidentally, the DVD format exploded onto the world of home entertainment at right around the same time. The Bouncer was developed by DreamFactory, the fighting game specialists who did the two Tobal games and Ehrgeiz on PS1.
Noriko Matsueda and Takahito Eguchi teamed up again to compose the score for The Bouncer. Since the game was pretty much non-stop action, the resulting soundtrack is equally fast-moving, at times bearing similarities to Namco’s Tekken soundtracks of the time. Matsueda and Eguchi might have been bound by game genre limits here, not being able to throw in the occasional playfulness that made a score like Racing Lagoon so memorable.
However, there are some classic Matsueda vibes to be found in the score. The theme for Sion Barzard, the boyish main character of the game (playable above), contains a nice piano solo after around the one minute mark. Volt Krueger’s theme, who is Sion’s bouncer colleague, employs bagpipe samples (!), which, amazingly, don’t sound out of place here. Also look out for some nice synth work at around one and half minutes.
In the constraints of a full-on action game — and a short one at that — Noriko Matsueda and Takahito Eguchi managed to cram in some of their trademark audaciousness. Their next, and final, Square game would give them a lot more room to breath: Final Fantasy X-2, the poppy sequel to the more somber Final Fantasy X from 2001.
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IV. A High Note: Final Fantasy X-2 (2003)
After the Final Fantasy movie had failed pretty substantially, businessman Yoichi Wada succeeded Final Fantasy creator (and the movie’s director) Hironobu Sakaguchi as new CEO of Square. Wada led the company to branch out its successful games into their own franchises. Soon after, Square merged with long-time rival Enix to form Square Enix.*
Final Fantasy X-2 directly followed Wada’s new approach, as it was the first direct sequel to a numbered Final Fantasy entry. At the same time, it was the last game Square put out themselves, before the merger. FF X-2 would also mark the final soundtrack Noriko Matsueda worked on before leaving the video game industry for good.
Matsueda and her partner Takahito Eguchi took over for Nobuo Uematsu, who had scored the original Final Fantasy X and who now, for the first time, didn’t appear in the soundtrack credits for an entry of the renowned series.
Final Fantasy X-2 was consciously designed as a loftier experience than the original X, with a Charlie’s Angels style trio of strong females as the leads. Consequently, Matsueda and Eguchi could act out their catchy brand of game music very well here, delivering groovy, unorthodox themes like Let Me Blow You a Kiss (also known as I’ll Give You Something Hot). Disco chords, funky drums and the lead guitar (which might be a Japanese Shamisen) come together so nicely here, it’s just a joy to listen to.
The background themes for various locations, like the beachy Besaid (sampled above) or the gloomy Zanarkand Ruins carry a chill, melancholic vibe. Both contain piano solos by Noriko Matsueda, which echo her earlier works and her expertise with the instrument. It’s evident that Matsueda and Eguchi enjoyed the broader array of tones and feelings that a big Final Fantasy game brought with it, especially after the action-heavy The Bouncer they had scored before.
As is common for a Final Fantasy game, X-2 gets darker by the end. However, Matsueda and Eguchi managed to weave their special style into the more epic tracks that usually play during the later chunks of the adventures. Struggle to the Death, for example, employs a rather extraordinary vocal sample, whose origin is tough to deduce. But in its own way, that uncertainty helps heighten the uneasy atmosphere the track carries.
V. Epilogue: When Square Got Funky
Noriko Matsueda quit the video game business after completing the Final Fantasy X-2 project. She did not work on any games the newly founded company Square Enix put out. In a way, Matsueda personifies a certain period at Square, the late 1990s and early 2000s: a time of experimentation and risk-taking, made possible by the massive earnings of mainstream superhits such as Final Fantasy VII to IX.
There is little information on Matsueda’s work after her retirement from the games industry available online. But the forward looking, creatively bold, and catchy soundtracks she created at Square speak for themselves. Many Square and Square Enix soundtracks can be enjoyed on streaming platforms such as Spotify; however, Matsueda’s scores are absent. Somehow fitting for an underrated artist like her: Noriko Matsueda’s work wants to be discovered.**
* If you want to read more about Square’s policy changes in the early 2000s, I recommend Matt Leone’s groundbreaking Polygon story Final Fantasy 7: An Oral History. It describes the years at Square after their seminal game in great detail.
** I’m waiting for the day on which hip-hop and other producers discover Noriko Matsueda’s work. So far, amazingly little has happened on the sampling side of things.